Aboriginal students see substantial increase in cliches



Recently, there was something of a buzz here in Atlantic Canada over a new memorandum of agreement among universities and First Nations. Media reports called the MOU “historic” and implied that it would begin a new era that would see a swell of participation in higher education among Aboriginal Canadians in the Atlantic region.

If the reports could be believed, the news would be very good indeed. It is no secret after all, that while many aboriginals have excelled at the highest levels of education, as a group, Aboriginal Canadians are less likely than Canadians in general to attend university and to earn university degrees. According to this AUCC report, only 8 per cent of aboriginals complete university, and this Statscan report shows how aboriginal women have educational attainment rates well below non-aboriginal women. And since university education has the real benefits of broader knowledge and sharper skills, as well as other vaguely imagined values that might also sway an employer or lending agency, higher education can be one way to ameliorate the poverty that disproportionately affects many aboriginals.

But look more closely at the news reports and you realize that amid all the smokey, shop-worn rhetoric, there is no mention of actual programs or policies. Indeed, nowhere could I find any indication of any concrete programs designed to tackle the problems of aboriginal higher education. Instead, the news churns out a series of cliches that are as soporific as watching someone yawn. For instance:

The deal is “is designed to open the door to higher education.” (Chronicle Herald)

The deal represents a “new start” for Aboriginals (Daily Gleaner)

It’s a “unique partnership” that is “innovative.” (CCLA)

The deal “will contribute to fundamentally changing our communities for the future.” (CBC)

All of this is fine. I’m not in against opening doors or starting anew, but real changes require real solutions. Real change means specific policies and targets. It means hiring people with specific job descriptions and offices and resources. What is actually going to be done? Is there to be more money to fund bursaries and scholarships for aboriginal students? Will there be extra tutoring programs to help students stay in high school and better prepare for university in the first place? Will there be additional academic advisors hired at universities to help students cope with cultural differences and the expectations of university life? Or are there other programs based on needs that haven’t occurred to me?

In the hopes that the problem was with the media reports and not the agreement itself, I started looking around for a copy of the actual MOU. When I first encountered it, on the APCFNC web site, I literally did not recognize it based on the descriptions I had read. Where every media account that I have read suggests that this is an education inititaive (variations on the phrase “opens doors to education” are in almost every article), the actual MOU makes scant reference to education. In fact, the full title of the document is “Memorandum of Understanding with the Atlantic Region Universities Covering collaboration in Research.” That’s right, it’s an agreement whereby universities promise to do more research on economic issues relating to Aboriginal Canadians.

Still, the universities have committed to doing more work in this area, so that’s good right?

It would be if the MOU actually committed universities to anything. But it doesn’t.  The language of the agreement includes so much vague and conditional language that the agreement really doesn’t bind any university to anything. Consider, this key passage, for instance:

This MOU does not require any of the Universities to fund research projects and related initiatives, but the Universities are expected, subject to financial and operation constraints, to assist with the implantation of the AAEDIRP where possible.

In other words, if, in three years,  the university signatories have done nothing, they can, in all honesty, say they have not broken the understanding, because it did not require them to do anything in the first place. And any frustrated expectations can be explained away as being impossible because of  “operation constraints” which could be any reason at all.

Still, the MOU would be a nice gesture towards a worthy goal, except for the fact that it is being presented as a great step forward in getting more aboriginals into universities. The MOU specifies four objectives, and all are related directly to research on economic development. There is nothing there about getting more undergraduate aboriginal students into Atlantic universities. In fact, the only mention of students in the MOU is in the context of students working on research projects, and even then, every reference but one is specifically to graduate students. Again, I have nothing against getting more aboriginal grad students involved in research, but since grad students, by definition, have already graduated from at least one program, research help for grad students won’t help improve aboriginal participation in the system overall.

Universities should work with First Nations in the areas of research and higher education. What they should not do, however, is create vague agreements that commit themselves to nothing and then pretend that they are going to make a big difference. It gives the false impression that something is actually being done about one of our most pressing national issues.


Aboriginal students see substantial increase in cliches

  1. It’s disappointing to see yet another token effort to address the challenges encountered by minority populations. It is, in fact, token efforts like this that make advocacy around these issues increasingly difficult. They provide the illusion that large scale changes are happening and consequently silence the voices of both members of that population and advocates attempting to make concrete efforts. It becomes increasingly difficult to justify “need” when the vast majority of potential supporters have been lead to believe the issue has already been adequately addressed. Futhermore, it sends a clear message to the identified population that they are not worthy of concrete changes. Resultantly, defensiveness and feelings of discrimination are further increased, creating a situation where the doors to these communities are closed to further efforts of assistance from “outsiders”. But then again, this allows the creators of token efforts to label the individuals as “difficult” or “resistant” and provides a suitable excuse to do nothing. So perhaps token efforts are sufficently serving the needs of a population; the majority.

  2. “What is actually going to be done? Is there to be more money to fund bursaries and scholarships for aboriginal students?”

    – I don’t know how it works over there but in BC they don’t need scholarships and bursaries because few take advantage of going to university for free. I mean really? If you are given the opportunity to go to school for free and turn it down you have no right to complain about how hard your life turns out.

    Study after study shows that education is the most important tool in eliminating poverty. Stop complaining and do something with your life.

    • Kanada, perhaps it differs from one province to another, but my understanding is that in Nova Scotia, money is provided to bands for the purpose of sending aboriginal students to university, but that typically the amount of funding is not sufficient for all students who want to go, so the bands have to select students to fund.

      In any case, money for fees and expenses is not the only barrier to aboriginal participation.

  3. @ “kanada” and Todd,
    I can confirm that there is no such thing as free post-secondary education for Aboriginal students in British Columbia.
    It is as Todd describes – bands do get some money to let some of their members take post-secondary education, but choosing who gets to go is obviously a major point of contention.
    A lot of local organizations, including the post-secondary institutions themselves, also maintain bursaries or scholarships for Aboriginal students.
    But it’s not free, not for anyone.
    Jeez, I don’t know how these stories get started.

    • I go to school with Aboriginal Students who I know personally that have not spent a dime of either their or their parent’s money. They do not have the grades for a scholarship. They treat it as most people who gets something for free. They could care less if they attend school or not. Maybe not all Aboriginal students have their tuition payed for them but there are many do enjoy this. In my experience the majority of them are very apathetic towards their education.

      The student who builds an enormous debt to pay for their education has a very strong incentive to study hard and get respectable grades in the hope that they will be able to find a good job to pay off that debt.

      • @Kanada:

        You’re highly misinformed.

        Aboriginal students who receive funding for post secondary education receive such funds from the individual Band to which they belong. The money comes form the government to the Band and held in trust for post secondary funding. The amount of money given to Bands from the government varies, and the money that is provided to students from the band also varies. While one student from a particular Band may receive funding sufficient to cover books, tuition and a monthly living allowance, other bands may only have enough to provide for tuition, or only books, if that. Receive such money sometimes is a lottery unto it’s self. Often times there are waiting lists for Aborignal students wanting to go to university or college without the funding from the Band to be able to do so. Educational funding for Aboriginal students is not an intrinsic right as you have illuded to

        This system doesn’t go without it’s own cheques and balances. Many Bands within their own program policy require their students be enrolled full time to the exclusion of all else, submit each semester their marks for review, and maintain certain averages.

        In reality, funding for Aboriginal students is much MUCH more complicated than waking up on the day of high school graduation (an accomplishment few too many Aboriginal students are priviliged enough to achieve) to a nicely wrapped gift complete with bow in the form of a “free post-secondary education”.

        I think the issue that Todd Pettigrew writes of is absolutely worthy of ink, however the solution the authors of the MOU seek may best be accomplished by first striving to graduate Aborignal students from high school before looking to increase participation at the post-secondary level, as Mr. Pettigrew briefly mentions. Solving the later before the former would be much like putting the cart before the horse.

  4. We know that MOUs are a western mechanism to keep checks and balances on their relationship with said parties. In reviewing the article, my main concern was accountability. First Nations communities have the leverage and their sheer numbers demographically speaking, etc. to make institutions in higher education more accountable not just for enrollment of their citizens but also for their completion rates. There still needs to be more work in generating new innovative ways to get our younger population a more fair and equitable access into these institutions. Indeed, we need to support our students with bursaries and scholarships, as some of these mega National Aboriginal Scholarship/Bursary organizations are now making the application process far more complicated and lengthy for many of our students to even consider applying. Issues of Student Development will always be an overarching issue for our people as well, additional resources (financial, human)need to be committed by these institutions – the government has the ability to make this mandatory – why not create a public policy to address this matter, but ensure there is additional government money attached to this. Let’s build on the leadership for Aboriginal faculty, staff and students; and make access greater for those growing community leaders on and off reserve/settlements in First Nations, Metis and Inuit Communities.

    Tracey (M.Ed. in Higher Education – Dep’t of Theory and Policy Studies)

  5. Some PSE institutions are taking an active role in incresing aboriginal engagement. UVic just recieved a $250,000 grant to expand the success of their LE,NONET project: http://web.uvic.ca/lenonet/

  6. Pingback: Aboriginal students see substantial increase in cliches - Program Research - Program Research - Building The Village

  7. They should get to go to university entirely for free- but that means tuition AND cost of related expenses where possible. To take down ever possible economic barrier.

    But the real issue to be fixed is not with university access, but with primary and secondary education first. If you have low quality prior education- either do to what is provided, how its delivered, or how its received or taken in (or whatever the factors are)- you are not prepared for university and there is little value in being pushed through ‘just because’. I’ve taught a number of aboriginal students over the years in university and sadly, they are almost always the least prepared students, and it must be incredibly frustrating and horrible for them (not to mention they really can’t absorb as much at this level, since they are missing the fundamentals that should have been acquired years ago).

  8. @Kanda
    Having completed 3 degrees myself and facilitated 4 university courses, I’ve come across a fair amount of students (from all races and nationalities) who have forked over thousands of dollars towards a degree and still not completed. For some, it is apathy; for others, its for reasons far more complex then superficial appearances. Apathy towards a higher education has nothing to do with race.

    In regrads to your point of contention around the cost associated for higher education for aboriginal students, I offer the following thought. Even if, all aboriginals DID have all their costs to higher education subsidized, I would argue that they have paid for it in painful experiences (painful experiences caused by my ansestors-Europeans) in lieu of monetary contribution. A significant proportion of the “apathy” you report steams from years of discrimination, racism, cultural genocide and complete lack of cultual competance (including those attempting to provide higher education).

    Though, the horrid way aboriginals were treated and the resulting suffering was not my idea, I am still a representative of the people originally had the idea. There is no way to change the past, all we can do is change the future. Public apologies and funding for higher education represent some of the steps being taken (or should be taken at least) to ensure compensation to that race for their suffering at our hands.

  9. There is still a cap on Education funding for Aboriginal students wishing to attain a post secondary education and has been since the early 80s. Back then a single student would receive about 650.00 per month for living costs associated with education. Today there are still single students that receive that amount, although some Bands or Tribal councils will slice the funding pie with less slices so single students can maybe receive 850.00 per month. But who pays for this? Of course it’s the students’ that are now put on a waiting list as well as society. Let’s look at a single parent with 2 kids and the 1200.00 per month he or she would receive for education. I can do some quick math…unsubsidized rent per month, 3 bedroom place. 800.00 per month, utilies, 400.00 per month. no money for food or clothes, bus tickets etc. More and more Aboriginal students are incurring debt to help pay for an education. In fact I’m sure plenty of students are incurring 100% debt to pay for an education if there is no Band funding for certain categories (pecking order). I’d to write a lot more but I don’t have the time.

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